Tuesday, 25 October 2016

The gender of Brexit

A friend of mine recently drew my attention to this article about the gender of the word Brexit in various European languages. It notes that the word is masculine in French and German, but feminine in Italian. The Independent's version of the story points out that it's also masculine in Polish, Flemish, Catalan and Welsh.

Italian has a justification for making it feminine, in that the word it's based on, exit, is feminine when translated into Italian (uscita). This is a terrible justification, in my view, as it isn't the word uscita - it's the borrowed word exit, and there's no reason on earth why they should have the same gender. As someone in the comments noted, you can have two words for the same thing with different genders, and gives the example of das Auto (neuter) and der Wagen (masculine), both meaning 'car' in German. It's word that have genders, and exit is a different word from uscita. However, it's the Accademia della Crusca, Italy's language body, that has decreed this and they have fixed principles on the matter, so they must stick to them.

If a new word is similar to an existing one, then it'll tend to behave like that one. An invented verb like gling might have an irregular past tense glang, on analogy with sing. We might be tempted to pluralise POTUS (President of the United States) to POTI on analogy with other words ending in -us, like cactus.

If there isn't an easy parallel to draw, then I'd expect it to be masculine, as it is in the other languages mentioned. In Spanish and Italian, for instance, nouns end in -o or -a. This doesn't, so we have to just pick a gender. As the article says, most new words get masculine gender. This isn't, however, because 'Spain, being a Latin country, opts for male', as the Guardian lazily jokes. It's because whenever you have sets of things in grammar, there is a marked and an unmarked option. Consider number: we add something (usually -s in English) to show that a noun is plural, and without that, we assume it's singular. Singular is 'unmarked', plural is 'marked'. Consider positive and negative sentences: we have a word to show that the sentence is negative, but nothing to show that it's positive. Negative is 'unmarked', positive is 'unmarked'. The unmarked option is the default option.

When it comes to gender, masculine tends to be the unmarked option. If you have a group of friends in Spanish, then if they're all male, they're amigos. If they're all female, they're amigas. If they're mixed, then they're amigos (masculine). Now, whether this reflects a deeply sexist mindset, whether it has contributed over many generations to sexist thinking, or whether it's totally unrelated, probably remains an unsolved question. But it does mean that new words get masculine gender in most languages.

Welsh appears to be taking a very pragmatic approach to the matter: it's masculine because if it was feminine, it would have to have 'consonant mutation', which is when certain nouns change the sound they begin with under certain conditions. It's just easier to make it masculine.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Quite Black

I've been meaning to write a post about quite for quite a while. This is as a result of Google announcing a phone. In this country it comes in just two (boring) colours, but elsewhere it comes in three: Quite Black, Very Silver, and Really Blue.

At first, I found Quite Black a funny name - I'm not sure why, but the understatement of it seemed amusing. But! Google is American and there is definitely some difference in the meaning of quite in UK vs US usage. The latter two make me think that Google intends quite in its meaning of very or completely. We can use it like that here, although it sounds a bit old-fashioned or posh:
That's quite enough of your nonsense, young lady! I'm quite sure you wouldn't speak like that to your mother! 
So it isn't an understatement; they mean that it's very black, or completely black. Disappointing.

Lynne Murphy has (of course) written about this difference, here and here. She points out that the difference is 'very much' (AmE) vs 'not so much' (BrE), or that it strengthens the force of an adjective in American English but weakens it in British English.

I don't know know quite how I would characterise it in British English. It does weaken the force, and it does mean 'not so much', but so much, as always, depends on the tone. How you say it can make It's quite black mean that it's waaaaay too black (sort of rise-fall intonation - I'm not a phonetician, sorry) or that it's really a very good level of blackness (rising intonation). Of course, this is what intonation does, and to some extent you get this without quite, but it adds this ambiguity. In both cases, it means that there is a high level of blackness. With yet another intonation (strong emphasis on quite), it can also mean that it's relatively black, but not as black as you would hope.

Either way, even though the 'high level of blackness' meanings are very accessible in British English, we interpret the phrase Quite Black as an understatement, a weakening of the force of black, and not as a strengthener.

If I was Google, I'd have released it in Purest Green: